Sunday, January 04, 2015

Air expo continues to fly high

SEBRING – Eleven years ago the idea of a U.S. Sports Aviation Expo at the Sebring Regional Airport turned out to be the right idea at the right time..

Bob Wood, a member of the Aviation Authority’s board, recalled recently that airport officials were looking then at ways to increase traffic and business at the facility.

“We were always looking for opportunities to increase business,” said Wood, who is also a pilot.

It was around that time that the light sports aviation industry was gaining altitude, he said.

So by starting an expo geared at that industry, Sebring Regional Airport got in at the ground level to begin something relatively new and build it up, he said.

And just over a decade later, the expo has grown substantially in the number of exhibitors and attendees. Not only does it involve local people, but it attracts attendees and participants from other parts of the United States, as well as other countries.

“We were sure that after the first few months working on it, we could make it a very successful event,” Wood said.

One of the keys to that was promoting the expo and the airport to light sports aviation dealers.

“There weren’t that many light sports aircraft dealers then and the dealers that did exist had no idea who we were or knew anything about us,” Wood said.

But besides attracting those dealers to display their airplanes in Sebring, the event has also helped the airport grow. Several businesses have located to the airport with part of the reason being that owners of those businesses became familiar with the airport through having attended the expo, said Mike Willingham, executive director of the airport.

This year’s expo will be held from Jan. 14 to 17., from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Besides having more than 140 vendors with exhibits, the expo provides a lot of educational opportunities, according to information from the expo’s web site.

Each day at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., Stewart Covering Systems will hold a hands-on workshop demonstration of its fabric covering system.

At 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. each day Aviation Survival Technologies will present a water-ditching survival demonstration. Randy Boone of AVT will show the proper way to use life vests and how to deploy a raft from the wing of the aircraft and or from the water.

Other workshop or forum topics include starting or joining a flying club, dos and don’ts for a good and successful air park real estate experience, building light-sport aircraft, seaplanes, flying safe in and around Florida, “Chock talk with a fighter pilot,” Aviation insurance and flying to the Bahamas.

Jana Filip, the current director of the expo, has seen the growth of expo to what it is today. She’s been either a volunteer or director, since it began.

“There’s been small, but steady growth,” she said.

Filip said that when the expo started in 2004 they only needed “a handful of volunteers,” to help with the event. Now they need a virtual army of 240 volunteers, she said.

The early expos drew around 5,000 attendees at the outset, she said. Now they expect at least 18,000 people to come.

Part of the task at the outset was to make more people familiar with the airport that was best known for having a race track, Wood said.

A decade later, many people in the aircraft community not only are aware of the race track, but also the expo, Filip said.

“I can wear my themed shirt to aviation events and people know who I am,” she said.

This year, she said, larger light sport aircraft will be new to the expo. The expansion will include planes with twin engines and four seats.

A large part of the expo is planes for sale. The prices run from $30,000 for build-your-own kits to more than $200,000 for the larger sports aircraft.

Having a spot at the expo is so coveted that one man brought his airplane down early this year because during the two previous years, he was unable to because of weather conditions at the time of the expo.

Kris Siuba, who deals with Ekolot aircraft, said Florida is a good location to the sell the aircraft because of the lack of freezing weather.

The economic benefits to the community are obvious, said Filip, whose background is in hospitality and tourism.

The expo brings “20,000 people to this community who would not be here otherwise,” she said.

It also has brought jobs.

Shannon Yeager, sales manager of TECNAM, a company that manufactures light sport aircraft, said the presence of the expo tipped the scales in favor of TECNAM locating at the Sebring Regional Airport as opposed to another location.

He said the expo will provide good exposure for TECNAM.

Paradise Aircraft LLC of Brazil also recently located to the airport. Bert Motoyama, director of operations, said the expo is also a plus that Paradise considered in locating at the Sebring airport.

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